Collier Schorr - Conversation taken from TTA9 - SS 2015
Interview Jan Kedves
Portrait Ari Marcopoulos
“If I was born for anything, it was to do a Calvin Klein ad!” says Collier Schorr, best known for her ‘Jens F.’ series, shot in southern Germany in the early ’00s, as well as her photographs of wrestlers. Born in 1963 in New York, Schorr may not have reached this particular goal yet, but she certainly is at a high point in her career as a fashion photographer. For the fall/winter 2015 season she shot campaigns for Versus Versace, A.P.C. and Nina Ricci for the first time, alongside her work for repeat clients Brioni and Jil Sander. The fashion industry’s infatuation with Schorr owes not least to her originally erotic sensibility, which gravitates towards androgynous figures captured without a hint of cliché. Active as an art critic in the 1980s and 1990s, writing for publications such as Artforum and Frieze, with TTA Schorr discusses her relationship to identity politics, the oddly empty gaze of selfies and her fantasy of cruise travel.
A few years ago you said in an interview with Flash Art that photography gives you the option to travel, that it’s about “taking pictures of the places I knew existed but never went to.”
Yeah, there’s actually a piece I made in the ’90s called The Chance to Travel. It’s one of my first photos. Maybe that was the genesis of that realization—that the photograph is a kind of proof of where you’ve been, and that the person you’re shooting is a kind of apparatus of newness.
Can you explain that?
Well, in some way every person you photograph takes you someplace, and every person you shoot makes you slightly more interesting than you would be on your own. I feel like through shooting different kinds of people and characters I’ve sort of accumulated experience in the world. I always saw photography as a way of entering new territory—probably because the first pictures I took were in Southern Germany, and my second big project was shooting wrestlers in workout rooms. These were places that were very foreign to me as a kid growing up. So the camera can become this passport that lets you into these places that you can decide are countries that you’ve never been to. And yet another side of it is: photography is promiscuity. It’s about falling in love and connecting and becoming intimate with other bodies in a really kind of permissible way. So you’re constantly getting your fantasies refilled through photography—which is another kind of travel.
It’s interesting that you speak of a “proof of where you’ve been.” Nowadays this seems to be the reason for ‘selfies.’ People travel to foreign places—but then the only thing they want to see is their own face.
When I take pictures I never see myself in the equation. I mean, look at my face! This is not a selfie face! I see myself more as the hand to the stick. And the stick is really the person who I’m shooting. It’s their ego. They’re looking at the camera as a mirror. That just became very clear to me again recently when I did a self-portrait with Fran Lebowitz.
The New York writer who wears these great men’s suits?
Yeah, she was my first female role model. When I was growing up, all my role models were gay male writers—Paul Bowles, Chris- topher Isherwood and Truman Capote. But then someone said to me at exactly the right moment, “You’re like a young Fran Lebowitz.” And for the next couple of years that’s all I was! I interviewed her in 1982 when I was 18 and studying journalism, for the School of Visual Arts’ newspaper which was called Canvas. A while ago I posted a picture of the tapes, and a magazine editor I work with saw that and said “Oh, we should transcribe those and run the interview, and maybe revisit it!” So we contacted Fran, and she said “I don’t remember,” and I said “Well, it’s 30 years ago!” When we did the picture, I stood next to her, I set up the camera on a tripod and I had one of those clicking shutter release buttons. But when I look at my face in the picture, it’s bizarre, because with my eyes I’m looking at no one. Because no one’s taking a picture! If Fran had been taking the picture, it would have been very different, I would have been trying to appeal to her. But in this kind of self-portrait, there is no one to appeal to. In that picture I see how important it is to avail yourself to seduction. And I guess that’s my take on the selfie.
Last year, you put out your photo book ‘8 Women’ which contains only pictures of women—except for one male nude. Did this feel like coming full circle for you? I’m asking because at the beginning of your career, you only shot boys and men . . .
Yeah, clearly I turned over a new leaf. It’s a complicated subject, and I could put it together from different sides . . . first of all, when I started taking pictures, I couldn’t figure out how to represent women in a way that made me feel comfortable, so I just avoided it. It just also wasn’t the fashion where I was. You know, in the ’80s, there was a lot of appropriation art, a lot of agitprop work, a lot of identity politics—which I was very invested in. And there were all these great role models of successful female artists: Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Laurie Simmons, Louise Lawler. Basically, in art the gist at the time was that you couldn’t represent women, because there was already such a deluge of female imagery, and there was no way to represent women without objectifying them, without making them vulnerable to the gaze—all that kind of Laura Mulvey stuff we read. That’s why we appropriated in those early days.
Yeah, Guess ads and Calvin Klein ads and Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber pictures—these were pictures that I loved! For me, appropriating them was a way of having female figures in my work, and seemingly that appropriation signaling a kind of criticism of where the images were in the first place. But at the same time I enjoyed having the women in my work. It was the best way I knew to express my desire! And then, when I started taking pictures, shooting boys and men seemed like a way of pushing an agenda of clarifying female power and undermining certain tenets about masculinity. And also, it was easy for me, because I had no investment.
You’ve previously spoken about how Jens F., the boy from the small German town Schwäbisch Gmünd whom you photographed frequently in the ’90s and who became the protagonist of your photographic appropriations of The Helga Pictures by American painter Andrew Wyeth, would refuse to do certain poses because he thought they were too girly for him.
Yeah, Jens F. was a six or seven year project. Sometimes, Jens was not in the mood to pose. Or sometimes, when his body could barely express the things I was seeing in Wyeth’s Helga paintings, but his expression couldn’t, I would cast a girl in the role of Jens. And I guess this kind of announced to me that I was missing some engagement—some level of emotional contact that I couldn’t get from a boy. I started to feel like there was a repression in my work, because if I was only shooting men but I was attracted to women, why were women absent? Especially in the wrestling pictures: why was I glorifying, worshipping and idolizing the male body? It seemed slightly on the edge of self-hating. You know, joyful self-hating, but still . . .
So that was the reason why your stance on representing women did change after a while?
Yeah, for me the discovery was that there really is no representation without guilt; there is no solution to representation as an issue. The only way to do it is to kind of go through it, take notes and figure out how, you know, if there’s going to be a naked female body in the world, what other kind can there be? What other messages can it convey? Once I realized that, I started to circle around it more, in fashion work. Because up until then I had only shot boys in fashion as well. I had just completely avoided the female figure, because of all places, fashion would be the most dangerous.
When did you start working for fashion? In the mid-90s, right?
Yeah, probably around ’95, ’96. I did a few shoots for Purple, for Olivier Zahm, and a few for i-D. It was all very self-produced, self-made. The magazines would send me boxes of clothes to Schwäbisch Gmünd where I would always spend my summers, and I just dressed the kids I knew there in whatever came in the mail.
Even without a stylist?
Yeah. I can’t imagine that happening today. I mean, they sent tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothes to this small town. The post office called and said “There’s too many boxes! Come get them yourself!” It was such a small post office, they couldn’t deliver all these boxes.
Since finishing the Jens F. project and since you don’t spend your summers in Germany regularly anymore, your fashion career has taken off. You said earlier that you always saw photography as a way of entering foreign territory. Has fashion sort of become your new “new territory?”
Totally. Fashion is my new Germany. And in the same way . . . you know, when I started going to Germany, I was so inter- ested in being a Jew in Germany, and being an American on the German territory of photography. I was looking at the work of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, and was trying to make ‘German’ pictures, in a different way. And now, in fashion, when I’m shooting a woman, I’m so invested in the idea that these pictures exist because one woman looked at another woman—that it’s female authorship, that it’s a female gaze. That’s the most important thing in my work. It has to be the reason why I’m doing it.
Did they really say “he?”
Yeah, when WWD reported in 2013 that you would be shooting a campaign for Brioni, they wrote: “New York artist Collier Schorr to photograph and film his first ad campaign for the Italian luxury men’s wear brand.” They even quoted you as a man: “Schorr said he chose black-and-white images as they transcend ‘time and genre’ like Brioni.”
Well, I guess they just didn’t know. A lot of people still don’t know! I’ve never been someone who’s like “I’m gonna go dress up and pass as a man.” I cut my hair short and I wore boys’ clothes, yes, but I don’t do any of those things that girls who really want to pass do. The minute I open my mouth, I don’t pass. To me, investigating androgyny was about not having the baggage of gender and being able to be safe in a room with someone. For instance, when I was shooting the wrestlers: if I had been a gay man that would have been a very different kind of presence. And if I had been a woman with long blond hair who could seem date- able, winnable, they would probably have seen me in this different way. I was this sort of no threat character to them.
What’s the difference between shooting professional fashion models, German country boys or American wrestlers?
For me, the greatest discovery really was that there is a group of people who pose because they want to pose—they get something out of it, they want the picture as much as I want the picture, they’re engaged. I see models much more as actors or artists, and we try and make something together. Before, I used to meet people on a train, or on the street, and I would ask them to come to my studio to take pictures, and that was always a really stressful thing for me. A scary thing! I mean, I’m grateful for the negatives that I have from those days. I can go back and look at them and find things that then I thought were disappointing, or awkward, and now I find they fit in. But one of the great things about working in fashion is that it’s very similar to the way Jeff Wall works: there’s someone doing casting, someone’s doing hair and make-up, someone’s doing costumes, someone’s doing set-design—all in order to make this picture come to reality. In my art practice I never could do that. Fashion is a way of having all these things brought in.
But doesn ́t that also put a lot more pressure on you? Especially when shooting campaigns?
There’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s not really your pressure. You have no idea of how excruciating it is to ask a stranger to come to your house where, you know, you only have some crappy light that might catch fire, and your meter doesn’t work—that’s pressure!
Could your work in fashion maybe also—similar to your Jens F. project—be seen in the context of appropriation? For example, in a story you shot in 2013 for Fantastic Man, there was a guy in white Calvin Klein briefs, and for the Winter 2014/15 issue of 032c you shot a girl in white Calvins. It’s impossible to look at these pictures without thinking of the pictures Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts took for the brand.
You know, if I was born for anything, it was to do a Calvin Klein ad! I may never do that, but that’s all I wanted when I was a kid. And I think once you appropriate, you always have that in you. It’s like a tattoo on your gestures or something. Sometimes when I’m shooting, I have this sense of what’s been shot before me, I have the pho- tographers in my head. The Calvin Klein picture in Fantastic Man was definitely a send-up: we had the Calvin Klein model, we put him in Calvin Kleins, he held the packaging—it was as much a spoof of Calvin Klein as it was a spoof of my own aspirations. And the strange, uncanny thing about fashion photography is: oftentimes, you’re the twentieth photographer to shoot a model, or the fiftieth. And you kind of fool yourself into thinking you’re having this unique experience with them. You know, all these clichés: what have I made her into? What has she shown me that she hasn’t shown anyone else?
But she’s just doing what she always does?
Maybe! Sometimes I’ll look at a picture by another photographer and I’ll think: Oh my God, I thought that was my picture, and now I see she does that for everyone! Or, worse than that: you’ve created a woman in a picture that can do things that other women can’t do, a woman just as impossible as the fantasies you’ve had when you were 15 or 16. And then you see her in a picture in a bucket seat of a car with no pants on, and you think: no, that’s not my girl! How could my girl go and make that picture?! And then you go back to the narcissistic artist’s perspective: she’s raw material, and you’ve made her what you want to make her. And you’re putting that into the world, as your propaganda.
I think there’s such a saturation. Retouching has been so incredible, it literally can’t get anymore incredible. Not that it’s bad, but, you know, what’s next? CGI ads that move? Something like a Harry Potter book, where you open the magazine and suddenly there’s a hologram? I mean, if you’ve gone as far as you can go . . . it reminds me of Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica: after you’ve spent all that time and money, and you went all over the place, in the end all you want to do is find Earth, go home and have a sandwich. So that’s where I come in.
But I guess you also do a certain amount of retouching, sometimes?
A teaspoon, maybe.
Imagine yourself growing tired of fashion photography at some point: what would be the next “new territory?”
You mean when I’m 70?!
I bring it up because in a lecture you gave at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007, you mentioned you’d also like to venture into writing screenplays and doing a film.
Oh, yeah . . . that felt like the next thing a bunch of years ago. I thought: well, I’ve been doing fashion stuff, and I’ve done journalism, I’ve done criticism, done art shows—I could make a movie, right? Why not? And at the same time I completely avoided it. I never wanted to be in the room with it every day. But the funny thing is: it completely came up again in my mind recently when I was in a hotel in Paris and met Bjarne Melgaard. A very nice guy. And I walked away thinking: oh my God, he’s the person that I should be making my Norwegian Bergman movie with! Like, he could be in it! He would understand those fantasies!
You talked about this in your Chicago lecture: the film would take place in Norway between 1940 and 1950. Probably a very dark, brutal story?
Yeah, violent, sexual, with a lot of guilt. It’s masochistic! Probably everything that Bjarne has going on in his work. I should mention it to him sometime. In some way I feel like he would understand the characters that I created more than I do. I see him as the analyst for the script, I see him understanding what I was touching upon and then telling me “But you don’t really know what this is! I can tell you what this really tastes like!” And that kind of brings me back to fashion: in my pictures I’m creating a sexuality that is a fusion between me and the person I’m shooting, but sometimes I think they understand more about it than I do.
So the model in a way is the analyst?
I would love to watch that film!
Yeah . . . but maybe, when I’m 70 and the whole fashion thing stops, instead of doing films, that’s when I start to enjoy travel! I’m actually known for not liking it. I’m better at it when it is work-related, because then there’s a real point to all of the downsides of traveling. But I think I would like it more if I was swaddled in a baby blanket and then brought to the place. But that doesn’t happen. I was actually going to ask my agent: could I just go by boat the next time I have a fashion job in Europe? I think that that would be really great.
For information on Collier Shorr's latest projects click here.